After being locked in our houses for approximately a quarter of a century to shield ourselves from pandemics, murder hornets and horrible renditions of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, the world is starting to take its first steps back into its new normalcy. And for 24 NHL teams, that means returning to the ice to prepare for playoff hockey in the middle of July.
Here in Vancouver, that means some of the Canucks’ ideas getting into the public stratosphere the weekend prior to the start of training camp and starting a five-alarm blaze before a single puck had been dropped. But there’s been plenty of stories from the first week of the Canucks’ return to play and no matter what those stories are, with everything that’s gone on in the last five months it’s great to be able to talk about hockey again.
I’m Caesar Flickerman, and welcome to the 2020 Stanley Cup Hunger Games.
For Boeser or Worse
When this bomb about Brock Boeser’s future was dropped on TSN 1040 on Friday, it put Canucks Twitter back into midseason form very quickly.
Fast forward to earlier today, when The Athletic’s Thomas Drance made it clear that while Jim Benning and Co. aren’t actively shopping around one of their top scorers, a (sort of) new wrinkle to the situation has made Boeser seemingly expendable.
While “exploring” and “actively looking to trade” are two completely different things, that doesn’t mean there’s no smoke either. Even suggesting that a 23 year-old homegrown prospect on a very team-friendly contract who’s best years are clearly ahead of him is farther down the priorities chart than a 28 year-old who’s already hit his peak years and will cost the team a pretty penny to re-sign is a cause for concern.
But the root of the problem with this debate is that it frankly shouldn’t be a choice at all. While most NHL teams have the salary cap room to pay their top forwards the big bucks, even as the pandemic forces the league to keep it at a flat rate, the Canucks have put themselves in a situation where overpaying for replacement level skaters may force them to get rid of better players they can no longer afford.
With that much money tied to players whose trade value isn’t getting any better, it’ll take at least a few sweeteners just to move them out. There’s obviously just a few players who can earn the “do not EVER trade” tag, but when it comes to a player as important as Boeser is, the Canucks simply aren’t in a position to be giving him up as a throw in to rid themselves of bad signings.
If Benning thinks the public outcry for not finding a way to re-sign Toffoli would be bad, just imagine how much louder the fans will be about a Boeser trade.
Feel the Rath
Jim Benning might not be the most popular man in Vancouver right now, but he sure earned some points back on Tuesday.
Jack Rathbone’s stock has risen quite a bit since the Canucks drafted him 95th overall in 2017, so much so there was worry he’d take the road often travelled by Harvard players and opt for free agency next year. But with Harvard cancelling all collegiate sports until early 2021, it gave the Canucks the extra bargaining chip they needed to get a deal done now; the team will burn the first year of the entry level deal this season and have him hit RFA status after 2021-22.
What Rathbone offers to Vancouver’s depleted defensive depth chart can’t be understated. During his sophomore season with the Crimson, Rathbone played on the top pairing and finished fourth in team scoring with 31 points. His tremendous skating makes him a useful breakout man and puck carrier, but he can rip shots too.
With Chris Tanev hitting UFA status at the end of the playoffs and Alex Edler nearing 35, it’s clear that the Canucks need some younger, cheaper defensemen to start making the jump to the big club, and according to some experts Rathbone could be NHL ready by next season. , he could completely change the Canucks’ outlook on the blue line.
Of course, due to NHL rules Rathbone can’t suit up for Vancouver in next month’s postseason. But on the bright side, now fans have plenty of time to learn the lyrics to “Fair Harvard” before his home debut.
With the Canucks’ only exhibition games just ten days away, there’s not much time for players on the bubble to impress the coaches. But if there’s one player making a good impact, Zack MacEwen has been impressing quite a few of the people in attendance.
MacEwen has made great strides since the beginning of the season, playing parts all across the lineup and finding ways to contribute whether he was on a scoring line or in a shutdown role. But his play could also prove to be a turning point for the Canucks in how they approach their depth; finding youthful players who can keep up with the Elias Petterssons and Brock Boesers in the lineup, but won’t cost them the price of one.
One team I’m always reminded of are the Pittsburgh Penguins teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. What made them so successful wasn’t just the work of their big names like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. It was also the contributions of players on cheap, short term deals that complimented the Pens’ superstars, took some of the scoring load off of them and weren’t a complete flight risk in their own zone.
Players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary all spent time developing in Pittsburgh’s system before becoming crucial pieces in Cup runs, all before hitting unrestricted free agency. While MacEwen might not be the next Guentzel, he is exactly the type of player the Canucks should be looking to give more opportunities to on the mother club and in Utica.
There are a few hopefuls at this week’s camp that could fit that kind of role perfectly in the coming years like Kole Lind, Justin Bailey and Jalen Chatfield. But as far as this postseason is concerned, MacEwen is making a very serious case to make the Game 1 roster.
Maybe winning the inaugural Nikolay Goldobin Award helped. Who’s to say?
- While MacEwen is making the most of his opportunity, it’s been a rough restart for Jake Virtanen. Virtanen was already on thin ice with the team and other NHL higher ups after a video of him at a local club without a mask and little social distancing surfaced on Instagram. Now he’s struggling to make his performance stick out during camp, except for a few defensive breakdowns in drills and scrimmages, as well as being on the receiving end of a stern telling off from his captain.
If Virtanen wants to solidify his spot in the lineup, a better showing in his own zone is going to be crucial. With Boeser and Toffoli already glued to the team’s top scoring lines Virtanen would be asked to play big minutes against the Wild’s top forwards, and right now that’s not a role he fits. If he takes some extra time to work on his efforts along the boards and his zone coverage on odd man rushes, he might be able to write his own name on the playoff roster with a permanent marker.
- Forget Jacob Markstrom’s winless record in scrimmages. The most important thing with Markstrom is that his knee injury in February seems to have completely healed. In the few glimpses the public has gotten from scrimmages, Markstrom appears to have no reservations about stretching out his knee for saves. And according to Canucks Army’s David Quadrelli, who’s been in attendance for a few of the Canucks’ skates this week, Markstrom has “looked fantastic” so far.
As for the stick smashing incident, I’m pretty sure Markstrom was just checking to see if the Rogers Arena boards were made of cake. Can confirm they are not as of publishing time today.
— Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) July 15, 2020
- Micheal Ferland and Brandon Sutter each missed chunks of camp last week, with Travis Green only able to label them as “unfit to play” based on the NHL’s new system to prevent positive COVID tests from being made public. But since both players have made appearances at the rink while missing practice time with the main group, it seems that neither are dealing with medical issues, which is great news for everyone.
While so far the Canucks have avoided any coronavirus related scares, Ferland has yet to see any scrimmage time and only skated with the main group twice so far. That will change tonight, when he jumps into the mix for the team’s simulated empty arena scrimmage. Considering there’s no lack of checking even in a friendly team exercise, it’ll be yet another test of Ferland’s health after a series of concussion related issues kept pulling him out of action this season. Let’s all hope for the best.
- The Canucks have drawn a July 29 date with the Winnipeg Jets as their sole exhibition match before the Qualifiers kick off on Aug. 1. As far as a warmup game is concerned, this is a great opponent for Vancouver. The Jets, who finished 9th in the West, aren’t a super tough opponent or too easy of one.
Winnipeg presents a unique tune up for the Canucks, especially considering Vancouver is winless in their last ten games against the Jets. Winnipeg has built a forward core that seamlessly combines skill and strength, and are anchored by one of hockey’s best goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck. If the Canucks can show they have what it takes to handle the Jets this time around, that confidence could set them up pretty nicely before facing Minnesota.
“What’s up friend?”
Ending on a laugh today, this whole video is gold. You gotta respect J.T. Miller for asking the tough questions, no matter how sad Boeser looks afterwards.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the article, join my Patreon for exclusive podcasts and early access to content!